My children are stuck in virus hell, and the anguish is killing me slowly

Wednesday March 18 2020

Melanie Olumasai a Kenyan student who has been stuck in Wuhan, China, for 40 days. PHOTO | COURTESY


I am one of the parents whose children are stuck in China, where coronavirus has killed thousands of people. I have three children — two boys, Gideon and Daniel, and a girl, Melanie.

The last one month has been tough for me as a father. I studied in China and have strong relations with the Chinese people, both ordinary and government officials, in various provinces. It is this relationship that informed my efforts to establish an Afro-Sino cultural exchange outfit.

Naturally, therefore, I am affected and feel bad and sad for all my friends in China and the Chinese people in general, whose daily lives have been disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak. I have no doubt in my mind that the government of China will do all that is necessary to restore normality in the lives of its people.


Franklin Olumasai, Kenyan parent who has three children stuck in China. PHOTO | COURTESY

My three children are in China as private students. That is why they may not easily be found in the registers of scholarship students. They were all due to graduate later this year. I was only counting months to receiving them back when the coronavirus struck.

I learnt about the outbreak from my fiancée in the UK and quickly checked with the children, who assured me that there was nothing to worry about. I relayed the same to my fiancée, who felt certain that the children were either protecting me from unnecessary worry or were misreading the gravity of the outbreak.


My daughter Melanie had just returned to Wuhan after a short practical attachment session in Shenzhen. Gideon was scheduled to return in a day or two when suddenly Melanie called to inform me that Wuhan was going into total lockdown the same day and that people were scrambling to get onto the last trains out. She was shaken.

All this time I still did not comprehend the full import of the situation, so I began scouring the media for information. It did not take an hour before I felt the urgency to, and actually did, call all the government officials I knew anywhere in China to help me get my daughter out of Wuhan. They responded. One even put me through to the police department handling immigration matters in Wuhan. But my children had a secondary problem. They had just submitted their passports to immigration officials for the renewal of their student visas for their last term.

I was too late. The orders from Beijing were that nothing moves in Wuhan, not out or in. But I was told that the embassy can requisition the passports when they evacuate because such a process would be overseen by the immigration department. I tasked Gideon with seeking that intervention from the embassy since I could not reach the only contact I knew there.

I encouraged my daughter to prepare to quarantine herself. The first batch of funds came from a Chinese friend in Beijing and soon after I wired more money. She was thus able to stock enough food to last her at least 30 days.


Daniel Olumasai, Kenyan student stuck in Shenyang, China. PHOTO | COURTESY

I learnt from different media sources that the coronavirus outbreak was not going to get better, and that all provinces in China had instances of infections. The province where Gideon and Daniel were instructed them to remain indoors. I have to say that as a parent, I am devastated. I have not had any good or right thought. I have seen only darkness. I have lost the capacity to think. In all my association with China, I have never been this helpless, and in a life-threatening situation. All I know is that I cannot afford to lose my children to anything, especially when they are just ready to begin experiencing life!

I have been told that if I crack, my children will be shattered. To my daughter, I had only one useful thing to say: “The breakout will be over soon, hang in there and stay in isolation. I am still talking to friends. I will get you out of Wuhan.” Never mind that it was all so hollow even to myself, because my Chinese friends kept telling me that the government will have this thing under control in no time. And it sounded hollow to me too.

I concentrated on Gideon, whom I could assign errands to contact a few friends because he had a better command of the Chinese language compared with his two siblings. I suggested to the boys that there was still a window for them to get out of China since they were not in Wuhan. I needed to know that they were not struggling to remain in danger. Gideon was the first, and he said: “Maybe Daniel can leave, as for me, I will leave only if Melanie has left.”

I reached Daniel and asked him the same. His response was: “Just think of what will happen to Melanie when she hears that we have left her in China. It will destroy her.”

At that point, I was both devastated and proud of my children. I called Melanie and shared with her the boys’ responses. She at times looked like she struggled with thoughts that she is adopted. We cried together. I could see that at this point, she was more confident that it wasn’t just me, but that she was priceless to everybody.

We play and joke a lot on the family forum to maintain our sanity. But often I have to pull Gideon aside and suggest to him steps they should undertake as a students’ organisation. The embassy must have felt bothered with the many calls for help from the student organisation. So through social media, it caught the attention of media houses in Kenya. Gideon told me they had exhausted their avenues and that it was time for us in Kenya to do something.


Gideon Asira Olumasai, Kenyan student stuck in China. PHOTO | COURTESY

I have spent most of February in very exhausting thinking loops. Kenyan government officials appear to have specialised in protecting their “airs of importance” and have no time to spare for anyone they can ignore.

The fact that China provided and announced an avenue for countries to evacuate, only for the Kenyan government to state categorically that there will be no evacuation, revealed the disconnect between the governors and the governed. The reasons given by the government for taking such a position were as flimsy as they were flippant.

The Health CS would come on TV to say that the ambassador in China speaks to each Kenyan student in Wuhan daily. But this is all false because I would speak to my son by phone and he would complain that the embassy is not taking their calls nor responding to their texts, and that it was time for us back at home to help. As a matter of logic, the ambassador could not be calling 100 Kenyan students every day unless that was all she was doing in China. I cannot even fathom what she would be telling them since they all only wanted to be out of the risky situation. My Chinese friends in China the other day convinced me that the government had brought the outbreak under control. But then, I heard the BBC announce that Britain had issued a travel advisory to all Britons anywhere in China to leave if they can.

My son Gideon had access to the “Britons in China” forum. So I asked him to verify. He found out that the web page had been blocked by the Chinese government that morning.

To my son, it is nothing. To me, that is news that sends shivers down my spine. I know there is nothing I can do. I also know that the government can do something but has chosen not to do anything. I am very sure that if, as it has happened in Iran, a Cabinet minister is infected, the government would suddenly take this matter very seriously. But apparently, not all Kenyans are important.

Saudi Arabia shut its skies to pilgrimage while Kenya is still finding a good reason to receive flights from high-risk areas, having left its nationals behind.

By the time affected parents were brought together by one student who managed to return, we were all feeling angry and desperate. Yet we still have to contend with being thrown out of government offices by security personnel.

Let me put it this way, my children in China constitute 75 per cent of my entire family. Like the rest of the Kenyans in China, they are not infected by the coronavirus. I will give anything to have them back in one piece. Completion of their studies is no longer important to me. It is not possible for me to paint a picture of what I am going through daily while they remain in China.

It is ridiculous for the government to claim that my Children are safer in China. From those lofty government seats and offices of authority, you must be able to see why the richer and technologically superior governments are evacuating their nationals, including the infected. If my children remain in China, it will be only a matter of time before they are infected, and to the government they will be just another statistic while I will not be able to live again.

We also know that the government allowed China Southern Airlines to terminate its direct flights from Guangzhou in Nairobi. This is not just callous, but also a declaration that the government of Kenya does not value its people. The leaders are in office for very different reasons and purposes. Otherwise, I cannot understand why China would have the courage to state to Kenyans that four more planeloads of Chinese nationals must land at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in the next few days.

When the Health CS and PS call press briefings to declare that they are ready to deal with any outbreak, and in the same breath talk of hospital beds being ready in March, I despair. When the matter of the safety of our borders mutates into a matter of racial discrimination if a plane from a high-risk region is turned away, I am left wondering what China has done to warrant such rigorous defence from our government even at the expense of our own lives.

In a different setting, I would be afraid to call out my government. That is not the case today, because you cannot kill me twice.